DALLAS — While sitting courtside after the Milwaukee Bucks’ Saturday morning shootaround, Khris Middleton did not know exactly how to describe it.
“It’s kind of like a training camp on the fly,” the three-time All-Star guard told The Athletic, referring to the Bucks’ current situation. “We’re talking through a lot of basics, walking through a lot of things on the court.
“So longer practices, longer film sessions, but it’s needed to figure out how to bond with this coaching staff and how they’re trying to get us to play and how we can adjust to it as quick as we can.”
Rather than two-a-day practices at the team’s practice facility, the Bucks are in the middle of a five-game, 10-day road trip. Instead of learning a new concept during the morning practice and then drilling it during the evening session, the Bucks spent 90 minutes in a gym on Southern Methodist University’s campus installing a new defensive strategy on Friday afternoon and then tried it out for the first time against one of the most gifted offensive players the NBA has ever seen on Saturday night.
And it worked.
After trailing by 25 points early in the second quarter, the Bucks made it a five-point game heading into halftime. Getting back into the game allowed Rivers to withhold the new defensive strategy until the second half, then spring it on the Dallas Mavericks in the third quarter.
Without a chance to head back to the locker room and regroup, Luka Dončić and the Mavericks were forced to adjust to the Bucks’ new defensive strategy on the fly, and it didn’t work, allowing the Bucks to pull off a massive comeback and secure a 129-117 win on Saturday night.
“That was definitely one of the first times in my career where we put something in one day and it’s been executed to an exact T the next day,” Malik Beasley said. “And that shows how great Doc is and it shows how great our players are in understanding that and doing it.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo was spectacular, putting up 48 points, six rebounds and 10 assists, and Damian Lillard was nearly perfect offensively, making 10 of his 11 shots on the night for 30 points and adding eight assists. But all anybody in the Bucks locker room wanted to talk about after the game was the defensive effort.
“I loved the switching, but I loved the trapping,” Rivers said of his team’s second-half defense. “We put that in yesterday. We literally worked on that defense yesterday — not just for this game, (but) as part of our defense.
“It’s called something and they were all yelling it after the game because they enjoyed it. Guys come from different spots. It’s hard to predict where guys were coming. I thought you could see Luka at times, just holding it and trying to figure out where they were coming from. And I thought our guys enjoyed that. Like, it was fun for them. It was like chess for them. And that was fun.”
The concept was relatively simple.
Rather than help and recover or play drop coverage against pick-and-rolls, the Bucks switched the ball screens set for Dončić to open most offensive possessions and then sent a trap at Dončić. The traps were forced to get the ball out of Dončić’s hands and force someone else to create something offensively.
“We knew what we were trying to accomplish from that, which is get the ball from the guy that makes the most plays for the team,” Antetokounmpo said. “And then everybody’s gotta be ready. Everybody behind (has) gotta be ready to rotate and make them make a play, speed them up a little bit. Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, it doesn’t work. But now, nobody’s sitting down, not participating on defense, everybody has to be alert.”
While the Bucks started to force turnovers out of the tactics in the fourth quarter, here is one of the early possessions of that defense in the third quarter:
As evidenced by the possession above, the Bucks’ trap and recover strategy was particularly effective on Saturday for two reasons.
First, eight-time All-Star Kyrie Irving missed a sixth consecutive game with a right thumb sprain. Without Dončić’s primary running mate, the Mavericks did not have another offensive player who could take advantage of the Bucks players scrambling out of the traps they sent at Dončić.
And then, as you can see on the third-quarter possession above, the Bucks spent a large portion of the game with Antetokounmpo playing center. Starting center Brook Lopez was a late scratch for personal reasons, and that meant the Bucks had more mobile defensive units on the floor throughout the game. While Lopez might have struggled to run out to trap Dončić and then recover to the rim to intimidate an explosive leaper like Derrick Jones Jr., Antetokounmpo recovered a little late, but Jones didn’t even think about trying to throw one down at the rim with Antetokounmpo in the area.
The Mavericks made nine of their first 11 3-point attempts to build their massive first-quarter lead on Saturday, but then made just seven of their final 28 attempts. Once Dallas had cooled off from deep, things became particularly dire offensively, and the Bucks’ defensive strategy started to produce turnovers in the fourth quarter.
Because of Dončić’s amazing one-on-one skill, having Bobby Portis switch onto Dončić in isolation is probably a losing scenario. But because of the well-timed trap by Middleton, the Bucks turned the play above into a turnover.
Similarly, switching Lillard onto Dončić might not be the best idea for the Bucks.
So, instead of switching the screen set by Josh Green, Middleton stuck with Dončić and the Bucks sprang a trap on the Mavericks’ All-NBA point guard and forced him to get rid of the ball. Green’s slip ultimately forced the Bucks’ defense into rotation, but Beasley sprinted from the top of the key and contested the left-wing 3 of Maxi Kleber, a 35.5 percent 3-point shooter this season.
“I thought it was a great decision to throw it out there and slow him down a little bit,” Lillard said. “Put the ball in some other guys’ hands instead of Luka and make them make decisions and make them beat you. And we got back into (the game) like that.”
As the Bucks’ lead started to grow in the fourth quarter, it became evident that the Mavericks were not going to be able to find someone besides Dončić who could make an impact against Milwaukee’s trapping defense.
Rather than building on the advantage created by Dončić’s initial pass, the Mavericks’ offense stalled out at times as his teammates struggled to figure out how to attack from unfamiliar positions. Sometimes, that led to them just getting it back to Dončić and letting him try to break down the defense a second time.
Even in those positions, someone other than Dončić eventually needed to make a play or hit a shot, and his teammates struggled.
By the end of the game, Dončić was trying to be a little bit too perfect with his passes and create opportunities for his teammates to score off of his first pass, leading to mistakes.
Dončić still put together a strong performance. He put up 40 points (on 13-of-26 shooting), nine rebounds and 11 assists, but his brilliance never translated into a strong offensive rhythm for the Mavericks because of the switching and trapping defense that the Bucks threw at him in the second half.
“I think it’s exciting, just having something new that you put in,” Lillard said. “We spent a lot of time going over it on the floor in practice, and then having it come in handy right away. I think having vets on our team and experience really helped us be able to execute it in a game like this, but we found another layer to our defense that we can go to.”
The defensive end has not been kind to the Bucks this season. They often have spent their postgame media sessions bemoaning a poor defensive effort or breaking down why they were unable to consistently get stops. The Bucks’ defense isn’t fixed quite yet, but the team learned something new on Friday and successfully applied it against one of the game’s best offensive players 24 hours later.
That is a step in the right direction.
(Photo of Luka Dončić and Giannis Antetokounmpo: Glenn James / NBAE via Getty Images)